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Virtual marketplace: Defense Dept. lacks clearinghouse for military videogames, say analysts.

As the military begins to rely more on the so-called "serious" games to ready its fighting forces, the vendors selling the high-tech virtual trainers are voicing frustration with the Defense Department's cumbersome acquisition process.

The government's contracting cycle is so resource-intensive and lengthy that small game developers really have a hard time with it, especially if they don't understand the acquisition process, said Brian Williams, research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, which conducted a study for the Pentagon on the serious game market.

"This is where game developers butt heads with the Defense Department," he added.

Those selling guns, tanks, aircraft and other assorted nuts and bolts to the Pentagon have learned to live with the Pentagon's bureaucratic ways. But video game developers, who may be used to the fast-paced consumer market, are encountering a classic case of culture clash, Williams suggested.

Get used to it, countered Roger Smith, chief scientist and chief technical officer at the Army's program executive office for simulation, training and instrumentation. It's the gaming industry that has to adapt to work with the government, he said.

"The military has a certain way of spending money," he said. It goes out and purchases a tank that will last for 20, 40, even 50 years. The same thing happens in training and simulations. When the government invests in simulations and trainers, it will maintain those technologies for 10 or 20 years.

"If we had built those simulators today, they would be filled with game technology. But we're not going to throw away hundreds of millions of dollars because we can see a better way to do it now," he said.

One solution that may help bridge the culture gap is an organized marketplace. The lack of a centralized procurement organization for gaming technology creates frustration among vendors, experts argue, and makes it more difficult for the Defense Department to grasp the latest technology at the best price.

"We don't have an organized marketplace where buyers can meet sellers, where people can exchange information, where project managers can learn about development companies, where development companies can figure out what projects are out to be had," said Bob Bates, an independent game developer.

Nevertheless, more than 100 serious games have resulted from grass roots efforts by game developers, who have sought out Pentagon projects and carved their own paths through the defense acquisitions process. But there ought to be more of a centralized effort on the part of the Defense Department to manage the procurement of gaming technology, he said.

The study, which was commissioned by the Pentagon's modeling and simulation coordination office, suggests that the establishment of a marketplace would facilitate partnerships between government and game developers.

"It's not that there isn't a market for serious games," said Williams. "But there isn't a viable marketplace," a natural location where problems can meet solutions, he said.

A virtual marketplace on the Internet would a good place to start, said Bates. It would be a clearinghouse, a place where hundreds of studies about the effectiveness of games could be collected and summarized. Studies currently are scattered about, leaving the impression that serious games are not effective tools for learning.

A marketplace also would bring together the cross section of talent and expertise necessary to create games that are both entertaining and educational, said Bates. Game designers, subject matter experts, technical designers and graphic artists all are driven by different incentives. "The intersection of these capabilities does not occur by chance, and this is another reason why we are calling for an organized marketplace, where people with these different motivations can actually have a reason to come together to create projects," said Bates.

An online marketplace could help a game developer evaluate its own products for accuracy, said Doug Whatley, president and CEO of BreakAway Ltd. Last year, BreakAway created a game to train sailors on Navy flight deck crew procedures. Though game engineers modeled hand signals based upon a specific carrier's crew procedures, they learned during the testing and evaluation process that those hand signals varied from fleet to fleet.

"You'll begin to see that organizations can learn from the process of putting it out in the virtual environment," said Whatley. "It's the power of that networking that makes that happen."

An organized marketplace not only would benefit developers, but it also would allow consumers and potential customers to access information about a game or technology.

"I should be able to download 'Incident Commander' without having to call BreakAway," said Williams, referring to a game designed for domestic first responders. "I should be able to see what the guy from New Orleans said about it."

A marketplace that is defined by the Defense Department is the best option for military serious games, said Williams. A centralized clearinghouse would streamline and demystify the business process of working with the Pentagon.

Working for the U.S. government requires business practices that often are contrary to those in the gaming industry.

For example, a game for the Department of Justice took four years from inception to completion--an abnormally lengthy period in the eyes of those in the gaming industry. Most of that time was spent in the contracting, research and development processes and review cycles, said Bates.

Government requirements, such as additional tests, verification, validation and accreditation procedures, and security proceedings can be daunting to commercial companies.

But game developers have to understand that the government isn't arbitrarily coming up with rules and regulations, said Bates. "They have actual needs that are legitimate needs, and more time and money has to be budgeted into projects."

A game company typically asks for advance payment. But the Defense Department pays after the work is done, said Bates. This makes "it very difficult for the game developers and the government to work together."

Another complicating factor is that the traditional rotation cycle for military officers often means those working on projects frequently leave before the product is complete, he says. "A major management change in the middle of a software project is really devastating to a project," said Bates. The government, unfortunately, does this routinely and people on both sides are frustrated by it.

Smith said the challenge for the government is determining how to fit technologies from the gaming and entertainment industries into existing military training systems.

"It's like having a 'City of Heroes' character going into 'World of Warcraft' and knowing how to walk on that terrain and interact with other characters," said Smith.

In the long term, however, these issues may not matter. In the view of some experts, the current interaction between the gaming industry and the Defense Department is a passing fad.

"I believe serious games, for the military, are a temporary phenomenon," said Smith. The government, he said, is interested in game technologies, but wants to be able to take those apart and assemble them in unique ways suitable for the military's needs. The gaming industry needs to make their technologies decomposable, so that the Pentagon can "bring in the middleware."

Eventually, the people who build serious games are going to start narrowing down their focus to specific areas, such as medical, education or military, said Smith. "They'll become defense contractors. Some already have started down that path," he added.

Contrary to Smith's view of a narrowing playing field, Bates said more and more people are getting into the serious games business. Foreign governments are investing millions in the gaming industry for various reasons, he pointed out.

Countries and organizations are using games to explain cultures, said Williams. Increasingly, games are being used by groups such as al-Qaida and Hezbollah, to explain political positions.

In Syria and Lebanon, games are reacting to U.S.-produced counterparts in which enemy entities are portrayed as being Arab.

"They are turning that around, making games that show how wonderful it is to die for the cause," said Bates. "Games are becoming a medium of communications--a medium that cannot be ignored," he added.

The innovation and speed of game companies are some of the main reasons why defense officials turn to game developers for their training needs, he added. Large defense contractors may not necessarily be able to replicate those qualities, he said. "One of the things we hope will not happen is that we end up with a gaming industry where there are three or four prime contractors."

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Title Annotation:WARGAMES
Comment:Virtual marketplace: Defense Dept. lacks clearinghouse for military videogames, say analysts.(WARGAMES)
Author:Jean, Grace
Publication:National Defense
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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